Give one listen to his 1971 song “I Pity the Country” and you will know Willie Dunn. Over a winding, fingerpicked acoustic guitar melody, the First Nations songwriter uncovers layer after layer of hard wisdom in his deep, solemn voice. “I pity the country/I pity the state,” he sings of the colonialist system working against him and the agents it employs, from politicians to prisons to portrayals of Indigenous people like him in films and TV. In under three minutes, it is a protest song that seems to capture an entire lifetime and philosophy, condensed in a few simple lines.
If this fearless and unflinching vision is what made Dunn’s music so compelling, it also kept him from playing along with the music business. In producer Kevin Howes’ extensive, illuminating liner notes for a new posthumous anthology, Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies, you will find stories of Dunn turning down early attention from Columbia Records (they wanted to market him as some rebellious cowboy archetype), smashing a guitar in defiance during a potentially career-making tour with Glen Campbell (he thought his tourmates were “a bunch of phonies”), and whispering an insult to Queen Elizabeth while filming her for a documentary with his activist group (“We are not your children anymore”).
When it comes to career-spanning anthologies, there are those that dazzle you with the directions one artist was able to explore in their lifetime, and then there are the more troubling ones like this. Featuring 22 tracks in just under 80 minutes, it serves as a meditation on all the things Dunn was capable of but unable to pursue. Nearly every song is remarkable, and nearly any of them could have served as a breakthrough—say, “I Pity the Country,” or the humorous but hopeless satire of “School Days,” or the Moby-Dick epic “The Pacific.” “You know, I’m a good fisherman,” Dunn once said of his career-long desire to get his music out there, “but there are no fish.”
Because of his flat, searing baritone and his ability to infuse basic folk melodies with mystic, allusive poetry, Dunn was often compared to Leonard Cohen. Like Cohen, Dunn came up around Montreal’s downtown scene. In this community of artists, he opened a coffeehouse, called the Totem Pole, after dropping out of school at grade 10 and finding work as a chef on a passenger train. Inspired by American folk singers like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, he began writing and performing protest songs, appeared frequently on Indigenous programs on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, and signed a record deal in 1970. Many of his best songs from this era feature accompaniment solely from guitarist Bob Robb, but he soon experimented with fiddle, harp, and hand drum players as his writing grew more ambitious.
As he was finding his voice as a musician, Dunn became equally focussed on activist work. His first brush with success arrived when he combined his two passions, writing long, narrative songs based on the characters he encountered in his studies. Placed as the opening track on Creation Never Sleeps, the ten-minute “Ballad of Crowfoot” was his first introduction to the mainstream. Originally composed for the CBC’s Indian Hour radio show, it is one of several of Dunn’s songs that plays like equal parts archivist work and songwriting, presenting the heavily researched story of the Blackfoot leader through a series of haunted, harrowing verses. “Why the sadness? Why the sorrow?,” he asks in each chorus. “Maybe there’ll be a better tomorrow.”
For a long time, this song would be Dunn’s most lasting legacy, largely due to its film accompaniment, often hailed as Canada’s first music video. A collage of photos and artwork corresponding to the narrative, it was used to teach Indigenous issues in classrooms throughout North America, and it received attention from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, furthering Dunn’s reputation as a leading political voice. Despite his growing acclaim, Dunn’s music career stalled, and he was frequently imprisoned for attending protests. As the decades wore on, he became disillusioned with the industry, battling long periods of depression as his records went out of print and tour offers stopped rolling in. “I play his tapes, and the audience always writes in to ask if the songs are on records,” says early supporter, CBC host Johnny Yesno, in the liner notes. “They’re not… Most of the time you can’t even find him.”
Over the course of his career, Dunn released only four studio albums: 1971’s self-titled debut, a remake of the same album one year later for charity, and two records from the ’80s that attempted to expand his sound into more atmospheric and conceptual arenas: Sometimes this meant reciting poetry by Shakespeare over accompaniment from Akwesasne musicians, as in “Sonnet 33 and 55 / Friendship Dance,” and sometimes it meant singing peaceful, melodic folk music over field recordings of birdsong, as in the gorgeous “Pontiac.” In “The Pacific,” he delivers a spoken-word meditation as the band jams on a beautiful, dusky melody that sounds a little like the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple.” You could imagine this being his show-stopping closer on tours to come, showcasing his art at its most boundless and communal.
In the decades since these recordings, Dunn’s story traveled through the Indigenous artists he inspired—from the folk-rock duo Kashtin, who recorded his song “Son of the Sun” in 1991, to the author and scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who covered “I Pity the Country” on her latest album this year. Still, his most identifiable work remains in the style of “Crowfoot”: acts of historical bookkeeping that strike a deep emotional chord, far beyond their original time and context. One of those songs, “Charlie,” tells the true story of an Ojibwe child, failed by the Canadian school system, who ran away at age 12 and never returned home. Shortly before his death in 2013, Dunn was asked to perform the song as Light in the Attic was preparing the pivotal Native North America compilation, a release that would bring his music to wider audiences and newfound acclaim. At the time, Dunn refused to play “Charlie.” “It’s just too sad,” he replied. Now, Creation Never Sleeps will do the singing for him.
Buy: Rough Trade
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